Portugal | Straw Mouse

After camping, I headed with Seth and Blanche to Seth’s mum’s house. She lives in a tiny village inland – still technically the Algarve, but far far away from any tourists.

I was very happy indeed to meet Seth’s mum – to see where he came from, and how he became the unique individual I enjoy and admire so much. His mum, Louise, used to live in St Ives in Cornwall until she decided to up sticks last October and move to Portugal by herself. It’s a ballsy move, and I was excited to meet the individual who’d made such a choice.

Within seconds of pulling up and climbing out of the van, I could see where Seth gets it from: his mum – sleeves rolled up, garden dust on her clothes, hair down – came out of her picturesque white cottage with a giant smile on her face. She hugged her son, squeezed Blanche tightly, and then hugged me.

Louise showed us around her property – around the garden she tends to, filled with olive trees and orange trees and new growing little saplings and more herbs than I can remember. She meandered between them, pointing out to Seth and Blanche how each plant was growing, detailing the work she’d done on each. I listened to them discuss gardening tools I’d never heard of and plants I’d never seen before. Seth’s outdoorsmanship has always impressed me, and it was funny to see its origin.

“The sawhorse you built is working really well,” said Louise to Seth, nodding towards a wooden structure across the garden. “I’ve been using it to chop logs this morning and it makes it so much easier. I keep nicking the bottom though, I think it’s a bit too high.”

“Don’t knock the design,” grinned Seth. “That’s you chopping wrong, not a design flaw.”

It made me smile to see them taking the piss out of one another.

The house itself was beautiful inside, with a rustic, swashbuckling interior with a lot of wood and uneven ceramic bowls. We drank tea and ate food and spent a very lovely evening strolling in and of the house, taking walks under the orange trees and chatting. Seth’s mum travelled a lot when she was younger – backpacking before it was easy, before it was a rite of passage for any old numbskull pisshead, back when it was all paper maps and compromise and getting lost in distant villages.

I was interested to observe how indoors and outdoors work differently in warmer countries. In England, going outside is a big deal: you put your coat on, you pull on your shoes, you set the alarm if you have one, you lock the door behind you and brace yourself against what will in all likelihood be a great slap of wind and drizzle. I enjoyed the flow of the village lifestyle: front and side doors ajar, drifting in and out at will, slipping into doorstep sandals, sipping a tea on a low wall and saying ‘bom tarde!’ to the local old ladies shuffling past, then ducking back in to grab something to eat.

We went on a sunset walk around the quiet country roads, and Seth leant down to pluck a dry plant. It looked like a piece of straw, except it had thin spines coming off it. These spines all pointed downwards, giving the thing a long conical shape, like a tiny straw Christmas tree. Seth held it in his hand loosely.

“Watch this.”

He wiggled his fingers, and the little piece of straw crawled forwards out of his hand – each spine catching on his fingers, propelling it forward. It made it look alive, like a little mouse shuffling out of a hole, nose-first.

“Look at that,” said Seth, smiling at his trick. “Look at this happy little guy. Oh, hello mate, nice to meet you.”

“You’re a dad already,” I told him. “You just don’t have any kids yet.”

For the half hour that we walked he kept repeating his trick, first with other pieces of straw, and then with other twigs and objects.

“Do you want to meet his evil twin brother? He isn’t as cooperative, this guy.”

He opened his fist to reveal a single stem of straw, without spines.

A little later on he did it again:

“Do you want to meet their dad? He’s getting on a bit.”

He opened his fist to reveal a gnarled, fat twig lying motionless.

After a quiet, pleasant evening of talking in the living room, we went to bed. Seth and Blanche slept in their van, and Seth gave me a tent to put up in the garden. I didn’t sleep well – dogs barked all night, and at 3am a chorus of yowling cats joined in, and at 4am some weird hooting birds erupted, and at 5am a rooster blasted me out of whatever shallow slumber I’d managed to fall into. I emerged in the morning feeling deliriously sleepy, much to Seth’s amusement.

We ate breakfast and chatted some more, and in the early afternoon Seth and Blanche packed up the van, said their farewells, and left to continue their trip – first the long drive to Barcelona, then a sixteen-hour ferry across to Sardinia for a couple of weeks. I had to work during the day and was planning on finding a café somewhere, but Louise offered that I could stay put and work from her kitchen. I worked at the kitchen table drinking coffee, and every hour or so wandered through to the living room for a chat. We spoke about travelling a lot, and about Seth. I had no shortage of praise for one of the coolest people I know, and of course, neither did his mum.

“He has the daftest sense of humour ever,” I laughed. “Proper dad jokes. Like so many times when we’ve been drinking he turns around with a cigarette up his nose and says, totally straight faced, ‘does anyone have a lighter?’”

“I remember before he travelled to India, he shaved his head. He had long hair at the time, and he left these few strands of hair right in the centre of his forehead, dangling down his face. It was so funny, it looked awful. And he walked into me and his sister like this, and we both started dying laughing, and Seth was just looking at us saying ‘What? What’s wrong?”

Louise told me that what makes her laugh the most when he makes his silly jokes is when you finally spot it, and you realise how long he’s been sitting there waiting for you to notice. Five straight minutes with a cigarette up one nostril, waiting for someone to look, trying to stifle his laughter. It’s tremendously endearing.

Louise dropped me off at the train station in the evening, and we hugged goodbye and she wished my luck on my journey, and I thanked her for everything. I felt very happy to have met her.

The train arrived thirty minutes later, and whisked me away to Lisbon and the next part of my trip. It had been a beautiful couple of days.

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